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Sir Trevor Nunn’s daughter in her first London play BOMBSHELLS

10 Jan

Bombshells Listings Poster

One day it may be possible to introduce Ellie Nunn without mentioning her parents (theatre director Sir Trevor Nunn and actress Imogen Stubbs). But when a 22-year-old fresh from Cambridge is starring in a one-woman show in the West End (albeit in an off-West End studio theatre), you’ve got to ask how she managed it.

The answer (hush you cynics) is under her own steam – or rather the combined steam of her and the production company Dippermouth, set up by friends of hers at university. They filled out the necessary application forms like everyone else and were selected by the Jermyn Street Theatre’s relatively new Artistic Director Anthony Biggs to put on Bombshells.


Ellie Nunn as Meryl

The result is a two-hour monologue in which Nunn presents six vignettes of six different women, in varying stages of life.

But don’t be fooled, this isn’t one long speech. Far from it, playwright Joanna Murray-Smith creates six dynamic conversations – some between actor and audience, others between actor and half-imagined other characters – to the point where you almost forget you’re watching a single-hander. The play opens with a day in the life of Meryl, a frantic mother with a severe inferiority complex. The scene changes to a lecture hall at the North Hetherton Cactus and Succulent League, where a timid Tiggy Entwhistle painfully stumbles through a lecture extolling the virtues of the faithful cactus plant in contrast with her unfaithful lover Harry. Next up it’s Mary O’Donnell, the bumptious leotard-clad Irish schoolgirl convinced the school talent show prize is hers. After the interval there’s Theresa the Essex bride with last-minute reservations, then widow Winsome fresh from a sexual reawakening and who neatly mentions the final character, Zoe Struthers, a washed-up diva attempting a booze-addled comeback.

Nunn herself admits that, at her age, she has not experienced most of the things the women she is playing have. But this doesn’t harm her performance, which is remarkable for its maturity. The depth of her voice, which is glorious, helps in this. And there’s something of a young Kate Winslet in her facial expressions, particularly the false grimace-smile she uses to play Meryl and Winsome’s serene gaze.

Physically, Nunn is a joy to watch. Apart from a few erroneous t-shirt tugs and hair tucking, she moves with purpose and uses her body almost as another prop. The costume changes which, as in the original 2001 production, occur onstage, become part of the play as Nunn casts clothes from the rack and indelicately yanks tights up to her armpits. Her steely application of black eyeliner whiskers without a mirror while talking earnestly to the audience as Mary is a wonderfully comic moment, as are the melodramatic hand and head thrusts of diva Zoe.


Ellie Nunn as Mary

Bombshells was originally written for Caroline O’Connor, the musical actress and dancer. Part of its originality as a monologue is in the dancing and singing required to play two of the characters. Nunn pulls these off spectacularly, her teenage dance routine thinly veiling a natural ability to move to music, and her final singing performance capturing the essence of a diva.

If anything lets down the show, it’s the lack of any meaning behind the six female vignettes we’re presented with. This was a criticism levelled at Murray-Smith’s work when it first came out in 2001, and Germaine Greer even said of the playwright (referring to a later play) that she “holds feminism in contempt”. It is a shame this performance doesn’t find something to pique the audience once the auditorium’s laughter has faded.


Ellie Nunn as Meryl

Where this production does stamp its identity is in the addiction of a seventh character to the proceedings: that of the actor herself. Several times during the play Nunn talks directly to the audience not in character. Nunn says she breaks the fourth wall intentionally to highlight that there is just one woman behind all six characters working frantically to keep the show moving. But as an audience member it feels uncomfortable. With the costume changes already occurring onstage, there is no need to bring more attention to play’s artifice, and one can’t help feeling Nunn just isn’t well-prepared enough to improvise in character.

Nunn insists that she would hate for people to see her choice of play as a deliberate ploy to showcase her own talents. If that’s her modesty talking, it’s time to shrug it off as her performance is something to be proud of.

First published in The British Theatre Guide on 9th January 2014


You’ve heard of Silent Disco. Prepare for Silent Opera. In a furniture store.

25 Oct

Charles Dance as Figaro

First published in The British Theatre Guide

“We’re closed madam.”

I’m stopped by an overzealous shop attendant swooping over to hurry me out of the seemingly empty furniture store on Tottenham Court Road.  I check I’m not in Habitat by accident.

“I’m here for the opera,” I say hesitantly.  The words have an ‘open sesame’ effect and suddenly the attendant is all smiles.

“Right this way, straight to the back of the room and turn left.  Enjoy the show.”

I find myself in Heal’s ‘Spa’, surrounded by handmade soaps, receptacles made from blown glass and – tonight only – full champagne flutes.  My coat is taken and I’m handed a programme and a set of headphones.  The volume controls are explained to me and I’m instructed to enjoy the bubbles in this room until the performance starts.  Still trying to make sense of the proceedings, I negotiate my way around a large Molton Brown display to find Gok Wan fiddling with his headphones with the same air of bemused anticipation as everyone else.


Natasha Day and Dominic Kraemer

The lights dim, we self-consciously slip on our headphones and hear Rossini’s orchestral introduction to Figaro’s opening aria.  I heard Charles Rice before I saw him, moving through the ‘audience’ pausing to rest a hand on a shoulder here or give a wry smile there.

The end of his aria saw us guided upstairs to the ‘Designer Room’ where, among the carefully curated dining sets, we perched to watch a series of excerpts from La Boheme and La Traviata, performed exquisitely by Natasha Day, Oliver Johnston and Katherine Crompton.  Then up the spiral staircase to the strains of Dido’s Lament before ending up in the ‘Sleep Studio’ to watch Mimi die on a Tempur mattress surrounded by the full cast of six.


Natasha Day and Katherine Crompton

Lasting under an hour and cleverly weaving together themes from different operas, it’s a perfect introduction to the genre for those unwilling to commit themselves to a three-hour production or to the emotional undertaking of traditional opera.  The creative use of a commercial space is exciting, especially in a genre that often struggles under the weight of its own traditions.  Director Daisy Evans, a recent recipient of the Sky Arts Futures Fund, says this is only the beginning.  “In my next project, I want to explore the relationship between the performance and the audience using Bluetooth technology and real-time social media updates from around the venue.”  Here’s one to watch.

Silent Opera’s last performance at Heal’s on Tottenham Court Road is Wednesday 23rd October 2013.  Tickets

Comedy In Climate Change: The Heretic

15 Mar

Johnny Flynn's Ben ponders carbon levels

My motive for going to see this play was less than pure: an unhealthy fascination for Johnny Flynn, a tousled haired youth adeptly riding the current wave of folk revival on YouTube. I didn’t really know what the play was about when I took my seat, and certainly didn’t have any expectations.

Which is perhaps why I was so entertained by The Heretic. Ostensibly about global warming, the first half of the play doesn’t move from Dr Diane Cassell’s (Juliet Stevenson) university room, from which she continues her research into rising – or rather not rising – sea levels. Stevenson perfectly plays the put-upon teacher, colleague and mother; a beacon of commonsense in a sea of radical, ego-maniacal conflict.

Orbiting around her, the small cast (five in total) work brilliantly together, jumping on the end of each others’ lines with wonderful timing. Particularly funny in his matter-of-factness was the towering caretaker (played by Adrian Hood). Slapstick is often belittled for being too easy, but Hood’s physical accuracy is just as hard to pull off as any witty line and the reward, certainly in this performance, can be jaw-achingly universal.

Writer Richard Bean plays with human belief structures. Climate change becomes a religion (hence the ‘heretic’) and then a political ideology – something you can choose to believe in, or not. Dr Cassell struggles to teach her students (and indeed her colleagues) the difference between fact and belief; science and religion. But it becomes clear that even her scientific rationality cannot be totally divorced from personal motivations.

The caretaker studies Dr Cassell's death threat

It’s described as a ‘black comedy’ in the programme, but I found the comedy more a deep shade of blue. The few opportunities for genuine emotion were always sabotaged by the insincerity of the characters. And all the pseudo-intellectual banter rendered them quite distant at times in their pretentiousness; not the kind of characters to easily engender empathy in the audience.

All in all, the greatest triumph, I thought, was the interplay between high-brow subjects and low-brow delivery. The meeting of witty intellectualism and physical slapstick. It showed you don’t have to be clever to be funny, but neither are you unfunny if you’re clever.

I’d like to think that even if I’d read the press about this play and built up some expectation, I’d still have enjoyed The Heretic.

The Heretic is playing at The Royal Court Theatre, Sloane Square until 19th March 2011.

Beauty In Contemplation: Des Hommes Et Des Dieux

17 Dec

Religion may have become a dirty word, but Of God’s And Men, which follows a group of Cistercian monks living in fear of Islamic fundamentalists in North Africa, transcends religious differences to take on universal themes of belief and brotherhood.

Details of the real kidnap of the ageing French group from their rudimentary monastery in Algeria in 1996 remain shrouded in mystery. Quite sensibly Director Xavier Beauvois doesn’t pretend to shed light on the whole story. Instead he and his Director of Photography, Caroline Champetier, concentrate on the decisions and the inner turmoil of the members of this religious community in the weeks leading up to their being taken hostage.

The camera shows the unsettling events of a small North African village through the observant and inclusive eyes of the monks. From Islamic village celebrations to the tilling of the land, the Christian brothers are involved in every ritual of their wider community. The images we are shown are presented to us as though directly from the monks : without judgement. As an audience we are not invited to assess the decisions and actions taken by individuals, but rather to realise the futility of such judgement.

Neither is this a story of two sides. The band of mujahideen may be introduced as the Christian monks’ enemies, but it becomes apparent that there is a third, morally dubious, party in the form of a militarised government presence. Different codes of ethics intertwine and clash as each group tries to accommodate the other without losing its own identity.

Religious imagery infuses the whole film. A particularly moving scene with obvious overtones of the Last Supper sees the camera cutting between extreme close-ups of the monks’ faces as they turn from laughter to tears, all set to Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake.

Agnostic myself, Of Gods And Men didn’t endear me to either religion. But it did make me appreciate the aesthetics of asceticism.

Des Hommes Et Des Dieux is in the running for the Grand Prix at Cannes this year.